BAGHDAD — Warning that the U.S. military soon will stop its regular visits, the U.S. ambassador to Iraq this weekend urged a group of Iranian dissidents stranded in this country since 2003 to dissolve their "paramilitary organization" and become refugees at some other location in Iraq.
Ambassador James Jeffrey said Saturday that the U.S. was working with the United Nations to move the 3,000-plus Iranians "to a place that is a bit safer, a bit further from Iran," but they would have to disband and allow themselves to be registered as refugees by the U.N. High Commission for Refugees.
But the Paris-based leadership of the People's Mujahedeen of Iran rejected the idea as a "non-starter" and said the Iranians would prefer to die where they now live, a location known as Camp Ashraf, than to relocate in Iraq.
Mohammad Mohaddessin, the official representative abroad of Ashraf, called Jeffrey's proposal for relocation in Iraq "shocking and questionable."
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The situation of the dissidents has attracted international attention thanks in part to the group's ability to rally leading former figures in the U.S. national security establishment as well as members of Congress and the European parliament to their cause. It says more than 4,000 parliamentarians, including the majorities of parliaments in 30 nations, back its preferred solution — relocation to a third country.
The U.S. Embassy said Sunday night that relocating the Ashraf residents was an initial step on the way to an eventual resettlement in third countries.
"There are ongoing talks with Ashraf residents aimed at engaging them on a voluntary internal relocation plan that sets the stage for eventual resettlement outside of Iraq," said spokesman David Ranz. "This would both provide for a formal status current lacking for the residents within Iraq pending resettlement as well as resolve UNHCR and Iraqi government's concerns over the current nature of the group."
But no country, starting with the U.S. and the European Union members, in fact is willing to take in members of the MEK — the Farsi language initials of the People's Mujahedeen — beyond those who have citizenship or residence already, U.S. and European diplomats told McClatchy.
For one thing, the State Department has listed the MEK as a terrorist organization since since 1997, citing a series of attacks in Tehran.
Last month, a delegation from the U.S. House of Representatives clashed with Iraqi Prime Minister Nouri al Maliki over an Iraqi army operation in May at Camp Ashraf, which led to the deaths of 35 civilians at the location in Diyala province, north of Baghdad.
Rep. Dana Rohrabacher, R-Calif., chairman of the House Foreign Affairs subcommittee on investigations, told Maliki that his subcommittee was examining whether Iraqi forces under Maliki's command had committed "a crime against humanity" in the killings. Maliki subsequently asked the delegation to leave the country.
Rohrabacher said he wasn't going to urge the U.S. government to take in the MEK members. "I don't think the U.S. should take in everyone who's in a bad situation," he told McClatchy. "We take in more people than every other country combined. I don't think we need to expand that much more."
Other members of the Rohrabacher delegation included Rep. Russ Carnahan, D-Mo., the ranking minority member; Republican Reps. Ted Poe of Texas, Jeff Duncan of South Carolina and Louie Gohmert of Texas, and Democratic Rep. Jim Costa of California.
The Ashraf residents had come to Iraq under dictator Saddam Hussein and fought as a paramilitary formation against Iran during the Iran-Iraq war, but were stranded here after the U.S. invasion of 2003. American forces had provided protection but gave up that role as Iraq moved to regain full sovereignty over its territory. Maliki has announced that Camp Ashraf will close at the end of this year, and the U.S. says Iraq has every right to take control over its entire territory.
Jeffrey told reporters that he understood the MEK was "chewing over the possibilities" of disbanding and taking on refugee status, but he said the group "really believe that the U.N. and the United States will protect them forever."
He said U.S. troops based in Diyala visit Ashraf "fairly often," either on their own or while providing protection for U.N. officials going to the camp, but they are not able even now to provide protection. Furthermore, U.S. forces "pretty soon" will no longer be based in that part of Diyala province, he said.
Mohaddessin did not respond when asked what are the viable alternatives for the MEK if no third country is willing to receive the vast majority of Ashraf residents. He said relocation within Iraq is tantamount to setting up a "death camp," and that the residents "prefer to die in Ashraf rather than in an unknown location where the Iranian regime and its Iraqi agents will definitely have a more free hand."
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